Dalits are people formerly known as so-called 'untouchables' as defined by the Hindu caste hierarchy based on occupational ancestries. They were formerly categorized by the ancient Hindu society under Shudras, under which there were subcategories of different occupational groups such as tanners, scavengers, shoemakers, sweepers, washers, and the like. Because of their occupational lineages, they were excluded and treated as so-called 'untouchable' castes. Today, Dalit is a political term used to commonly refer to these downtrodden masses, who are still politically, socially and economically the most marginalized and deprived communities in the country. Their multidimensional development indicators prove how oppressed they still are. Within Dalit community, Dalit women are still more marginalized and victimized.
How to considerably empower Nepali Dalit women appears a rather vague idea as far as reactive advocacy prevails, while proactive policy-oriented advocacy is still to be exercised with a change-seeking mindset. "Gender as a social construct disfavours women by rendering them marginalised from time immemorial," Asmita Bhattacharyya and Sudeep Basu write in the book they edited "Marginalities in India". Nepali women, too, are marginalised from ancient times, and Dalit women are extremely marginalised. There is general agreement with Bhattacharyya's and Basu's observation that the women's path towards empowerment is very challenging due to patriarchal subjection. As this is true, Nepali Dalit women's empowerment is indubitably more challenging.
In a study concerning Nepali Dalits' perception of development, Sagar Shahi observes that Dalits' socio-economic conditions as well as the level of social exclusionary practices against them have not improved despite advocacy of inclusive development policies.
Similarly, Nepal Human Development Report 2020 admits to the long-existing significant "human development gaps", along with "widening inequality and continued deprivation". While the report abstractly underlines the sine qua non for a well-yielding transformation to begin from grassroots levels, it does not elaborate anything else, let alone the transformation of Dalit community. However, the existing ground realities, especially in connection with the Dalit community, and Dalit women in the main, evidently suggest that the state requires to formulate a concrete strategy steered toward transforming their political and socio-economic status. Activating almost six million Dalits characteristically identified as very productive from the perspective of arts and crafts would incontrovertibly add to our national productivity. As the Nepal Human Development Report 2020 points out, the widening inequality and continued deprivation of such substantially productive human capital would undermine the nation's overall strength. Nepal's National Planning Commission is yet to produce a well-considered plan for the overall empowerment of Nepali Dalits. Education, as a multi-faceted change tool, would be the best option to plan for this purpose.
Nepali Dalit women, like most other communities, belong to the working class. Dalit women's political and socio-economic development indicators prove their extreme marginalization even under our liberal democracy today. Their life is confined to hand-to-mouth crisis. Since the astounding majority of Nepali Dalit women across Nepal have been struggling to meet their basic needs, education has become either a ritual or a luxury for them. Education for Dalit women becomes like a ritual in the sense that most of the Dalit girls who get an opportunity to attend school amidst livelihood crises cannot think of continuing beyond school level. They either drop out or soon get married and start a labourer's life. Education for them becomes like a luxury in the sense that most of working class Dalit girls do not have access to quality school and undergraduate education. They cannot afford to obtain quality higher education, which sounds like a luxury to them. Nevertheless, education is the supreme and the most realistic tool to empower Dalit women.
The spirit of empowerment generally, is to equip Dalit women with the knowledge and skills, along with at least a moderate degree of mental and moral insight, so that they can independently deal with the realities they face. The capacity to make independent and wise decisions in life will be an ideal of empowerment. Critical and analytical capacity is what Dalit women's empowerment paves the way for. Their empowerment cannot be isolated from the concept of social justice for they are deprived of political, economic and social rights. Dalit women's life is most usually synonymous with birth-ascribed poverty because Dalits were denied the right to own properties in the past. It is obvious that no major remedial strategy has yet been in place to change Nepali Dalits' human rights conditions, except for some legal acknowledgements documented in the constitution and laws.
Rather than debating about the historical legacies of their marginalization, the society has to address their present crises related to their lack of access to political and socio-economic power. This is the issue of their rapid empowerment through which they will feel dignified enough to live and perform better. Their rapid empowerment can result from their fully unhindered access to quality education, which unleashes their potential for themselves as well as for their society. Education, as a fundamental human right, is vital for Dalit women's political, economic and socio-cultural empowerment. Empowered Dalit women will look into themselves and dig out solutions to various problems that they come across in their life. They are expected to critically and analytically debate on local, national and international issues if they obtain quality advanced education. Only empowered Dalit women will be able to empower their children and community members; as a result, their succeeding generations will get empowered in the process. Thus, empowered Dalit women, apart from being self-reliant at present, will be instrumental to transmitting empowering culture to coming generations. State and non-state actors, especially those concerned with Dalit agenda, must now be proactive to guarantee education as a prime tool of Dalit women's empowerment.
While pro-women advocacy is going on in different sectors on feminist grounds, it would be advisable that the rapid process of empowering Dalit women be begun through free and well-supported education to be guaranteed by the state from basic to advanced levels. Article 40(1) under the Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of Nepal 2015 states, "The Dalit shall have the right to participate in all bodies of the State on the basis of the principles of proportional inclusion. Special provision shall be made by law for the empowerment, representation and participation of the Dalit community in public services as well as other sectors of employment." Likewise, 40(2) includes the provision of free education with scholarship, from primary to higher education, to be made by law for Dalit students, along with a special provision for Dalit students in technical and vocational education.
Moreover, Article 18(3) of Nepal's constitution presents the state's pledge not to discriminate citizens on grounds of origin, religion, race, caste, tribe, sex and the like. It adds that nothing shall be deemed to prevent the making of special legal provisions for the protection, empowerment or development of marginalized communities. These are the most apparent constitutional bases for Nepali policymakers and lawmakers to embark on the path of rapidly empowering Dalit women as well as Dalit community as a whole.
(Article changed on Mar 07, 2022 at 8:54 PM EST)
(Article changed on Mar 07, 2022 at 9:04 PM EST)